What happens in Austin between No. 6 LSU and No. 9 Texas this Saturday represents the culmination of a season-long coaching search and 36 hours of unbridled chaos that has been stretched into a three-year drama.
There were lies, secret meetings, press conferences, phone calls and everything one can think of happens during a coaching search. Interim coach Ed Orgeron, Houston’s Tom Herman, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora were all vying for LSU’s full-time job.
The drama reached a fever pitch at Texas A&M's Kyle Field where many of the key pieces involved in Saturday’s game just happened to be all at once. The entanglement that spread across the country now retreats into Austin a little over 100 miles west of College Station where the drama hit its peak on Nov. 24, 2016.
Monday, Nov. 21, 2016
Seemingly, Orgeron’s hopes of becoming LSU’s full-time coach fizzled when then sophomore running back Derrius Guice crashed down on top the Florida defensive line short of the goal line with no time remaining. After a heated build-up to LSU and Florida’s rescheduled game following Hurricane Matthew, the Tigers lost 16-10 and were eliminated from Sugar Bowl contention.
While LSU never set a deadline to hire a coach, a mid-December recruiting signing day was looming, and it was imperative to have a full-time coach in place. Losing a game against an inferior Florida team in the season’s final game at Tiger Stadium left a bad taste in many mouths and proved to many Orgeron wasn’t fit for the job.
A change was needed.
“We reported they were down to three candidates – Orgeron, Herman and Jimbo – and Jimbo was the favorite or who they might go after first, and I think I put in that story that date was going to be next Wednesday,” said Ross Dellenger, a reporter for Sports Illustrated who was the lead LSU reporter for The Advocate at the time. “So not the Wednesday before the Thanksgiving game against A&M, but the next Wednesday was going to be when they figured they would be done.
“There was no real deadline, but we all knew or everyone kind of figured it would happen on that weekend after the Thanksgiving game or early that next week.”
A five-member search committee assembled by Athletic Director Joe Alleva met on Saturday after Florida and again on Sunday. The decision was made to make Herman the guy, Orgeron was the fallback and Fisher’s role was something else entirely.
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016
From all accounts Fisher was going to be the guy. After LSU struck out a year prior and the Fisher deal fell through once the decision was made to retain Les Miles as head coach, the deal appeared to be back on.
Except it wasn’t.
A report stated LSU had extended an offer to Fisher. There was no offer.
ESPN later said that night Fisher declined the offer. There was no rejection.
As Dellenger puts it, Fisher was no longer a serious candidate at this point. His name was used as a diversion to keep Texas at bay and not enter the Herman sweepstakes until the very last moment. Still, the reports about Fisher were still out there and LSU did nothing to dispel the rumors.
“I think a lot of reporters were either straight lied to or whoever was telling them that stuff on that Wednesday about Jimbo, the people that were telling them they were lied to,” Dellenger said. “Or the people who actually knew were just kind of letting the stuff stay out there, and they were OK with that stuff being out there.
“It was all lies or just misinformation or purposeful misinformation – people were lied to. Because behind the scenes it was all Herman. All the negotiations with Herman were happening.”
Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016
What was publically thought to be Orgeron’s final game as LSU’s interim head coach arrived. As Thanksgiving unfolded, so too did behind-the-scenes negotiations between LSU and Herman.
Redshirt junior center Lloyd Cushenberry said Orgeron went into the week with the same demeanor as always. Nothing changed, and Orgeron’s mantra on blocking out the noise was in full effect.
“We were focused on winning that game,” Cushenberry said. “There was a lot of talk. You all have heard a lot, we always blocked out the noise even then. We focused on winning the game, and whatever happened was going to happen. Leave it up to the AD and the top guys.”
The noise reached a crescendo about 15 minutes before kickoff. Hornsdigest reporter Chip Brown was fed information and reported LSU not only offered Tom Herman, but he was close to being named LSU’s next head coach.
ESPN, which was broadcasting the game, ran a banner across the bottom of the screen stating Herman had accepted the job before later rolling that statement back and saying the two sides were instead close to an agreement.
“It was right before kickoff, minutes before kickoff, 10 minutes probably after Chip had broken the news, and I get up to use the bathroom and I’m outside, and right when I’m about to go in the bathroom I see Joe Alleva goes into the bathroom,” Dellenger said.
“So I’m like ‘OK, I’m not going to go to the bathroom. I’m going to wait outside the bathroom, and when he comes out then were going to have a talk.’ A couple minutes go by and then he comes out and I walked with him to his suite. He was happy to see me, obviously, and he was not happy at all when I broke the news to him that the Tom Herman report was out.”
Alleva declined to comment, and for the rest of the night the news about Herman’s impending announcement as LSU’s coach loomed.
LSU ended up routing Texas A&M 54-39, and Guice ran for a school-record 254 yards as the Tigers closed their regular season 7-4. Orgeron’s time as interim left a profound impact on the players and the administration and resulted in a 5-2 record with all wins by double digits and LSU setting multiple offensive records.
Team leaders like Duke Riley and Ethan Pocic led locker room chants and gave televised speeches in favor of Orgeron getting the job, and they weren’t the only ones in support.
For senior Rashard Lawrence, it was about having the position coach that recruited him as the head coach and the familiarity Orgeron offered.
“We didn’t want them to go out somewhere else and get somebody else,” Lawrence said. “We can’t speak on all the outside things, but as players we like Coach O.”
Dellenger says the outpouring of support from the players meant a lot in the committee’s eyes and Orgeron also had inside support, but come Friday morning, the deal with Herman was still on going.
Friday, Nov. 25, 2016
“I remember getting a call Friday morning driving back from College Station to Baton Rouge, and I stayed on the phone with this person for a good hour and they were telling me in a roundabout way, LSU was going to meet with Tom Herman Saturday,” Dellenger said.
LSU gave Orgeron a chance to interview for the job officially on Friday, but the biggest change in the mood among LSU leaders came later that night. Texas lost to TCU 31-9, and Texas coach Charlie Strong was fired. The Longhorns set their sights on Herman.
“As one person put it to me at the time on that Friday night, you’re sitting down at a game of poker and a rich, desperate man just sat down next to you so you’re screwed,” Dellenger said. “That’s kind of what happened.”
Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016
Dellenger received a phone call around 6 a.m. with news Orgeron was going to be hired as LSU’s coach. The only problem was Orgeron didn’t know yet. Dellenger had to hold the news for an hour, what he calls the longest hour of his life.
The news finally broke, and eventually, a press conference was held.
“We’ve got our man,” said Alleva, who was not able to be reached for comment on this story, at the press conference. “He’s been here all along.”
Later that day Herman was announced as Texas’ coach. A two-month coaching search and media circus came to end, but the public blowback was just starting. Alleva was hammered and Orgeron was doubted, and as the perceived day of reckoning looms, Alleva will not be there to support Orgeron.
The beleaguered athletic director was fired in April and replaced by Scott Woodward, Texas A&M’s athletic director from 2016-2019. He had been on hand as LSU’s coaching search unfolded in the press box at Kyle Field.
“Two years ago, we’re going to play Texas A&M, and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Orgeron said prior to LSU’s game against Texas A&M last November. “Jimbo Fisher was getting the job. That was Wednesday night. Then Thursday night, Tom Herman was getting the job. Then Saturday, Ed Orgeron got it. So, anything can happen. You’ve just got to keep on competing.”
When asked about Herman this week, Orgeron said he “didn’t care.” The focus was now on the game and the players on the field, not what took place off of it.
Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019
The LSU-Texas game will act as a formal conclusion to the last chapter of what may become a trilogy in the Ed Orgeron and Tom Herman story. Many members involved in what happened that Thanksgiving weekend will reunite back in Texas.
Herman and Orgeron will be front and center, but others like Woodward, Fedora, who’s now an analyst at Texas along with former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, who entered the 2016 season as the Tigers starting quarterback, will be there as well.
“All of it is wild how it's intertwined,” Dellenger said. “Louisiana and Texas, I don’t if it is because culturally south Louisiana is so different than every else in the country, but Texas and Louisiana, to me, don’t ever feel as sister, bordering states.”
“It just feels like two completely different places, but in this case they are really intertwined. It’s really interesting.”
As much of the talk will be about what goes on in between the lines, much will be made about the two coaches outside the lines and their intertwined paths to the present. The result sets the stage for a game of revisionist history or creates a forum ablaze with optimism about how the rest of the season unfolds.
Saturday’s game isn’t just about LSU and Texas or two bordering states that seem so vastly different.
It’s Ed Orgeron versus Tom Herman.